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Maina, Faith 

Cultural Relevance in Research 

Methodology/Paradigm/Terminology: Dilemma, Contradiction and 
Challenge . 

2002 - 00-00 
8p • 

Reports - Descriptive (141) 

EDRS Price MF01/PC01 Plus Postage. 

Community; ^Cultural Awareness; Definitions; Models; Research 
Methodology; * Research Problems; ^Researchers 
^Research Subject Relationship 



ABSTRACT 

This paper describes an incident between an academic 
researcher and a community member. The encounter, in which a researcher asked 
questions about farming practices, shows how cultural misunderstanding and 
failure to communicate the gains of research to the community has the 
potential to generate distorted information. The academic researcher has the 
responsibility to communicate in culturally sensitive ways, particularly when 
working with communities of which they are not members. An ideal methodology 
is one that would empower community members during the research process so 
that they began to gain self-understanding and, ideally, self-determination. 
(Author/SLD) 



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Cultural Relevance in Research Methodology/Paradigm/ Terminology: Dilemma, 

Contradiction and Challenge. 



By 

Faith Maina 

State University of New York 
Oswego, NY. 

13126 

Tel. 315.312.2641 
Fax: 315.312.5446 
e-mail: maina@oswego.edu 



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Abstract 

This paper describes an incident between an academic researcher and a 
community member. It shows how cultural misunderstanding and failure 
to communicate the gains of research to the community has the potential 
of generating distorted information. Academic researcher has the 
responsibility to communicate in culturally sensitive ways particularly 
when working with communities that they are not members. 



The Dilemma 

A few years ago my mother had a visit with some two people I later came to learn were 
an academic researcher from Nairobi University and his young research assistant. When 
the two got into the compound, they found my young nephew playing outside the house 
and they asked him if Edith Wanjiru (my mother) was in, and whether they would talk to 
her. My nephew ran into the field where my mother was working and told her that she 
had "visitors" at home. She abandoned whatever she was doing and came home straight 
home to attend to the said visitors who were still standing outside the house. When she 
came closer, she could not recognize either of them . . . well dressed men with clipboards 
is not a familiar sight in the village. Her immediate instinct was to take off and hide, but 
on second thoughts she came and asked the two gentlemen, "I'm told you want to talk to 
Edith Wanjiru?" The younger of the two men, the only one who could speak our 
language, replied in the positive. My mother said to them that Edith Wanjiru was working 
in the coffee farm and she would go and call her for them. She disappeared in the coffee 
farm pretending that she was searching for someone while all this time she was 
contemplating on a wise move that would make these gentlemen leave without 
"interrogating" her. One thought was to overstay in the farm so that the gentlemen would 
leave. But then she realized that wouldn't work. She reluctantly came back and said that 
she couldn't find Edith Wanjiru but they could leave any message they had and she would 
deliver it as soon as Edith came home. The two gentlemen consulted in English (my 
mother does not speak English) and the young man who was obviously a translator said 
that they wanted Edith to answer a few questions about her small-scale mixed farming. 
They said to my mother that if she knew Edith well, she could then answer for her those 
questions. At this point, my mother was more curious than intimidated and "volunteered" 



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to answer the questions for "Edith Wanjiru". The "foreigner" read out the questions from 
what I would interpret to be a developed questionnaire, the young man translated the 
same to my mother, who answered in Gikuyu, and the answers were translated back to 
the foreigner as he wrote down. Some of the questions were as follows: 



Researcher: 


How many children do you have? 


Edith: 


(without a blink in the eye) six (lie no.l). 


Researcher: 


How big is your farm? 


Edith: 


3 acres (lie no. 2). 


Researcher: 


What do you grow in your farm? 


Edith: 


Coffee, maize and beans (partial truth). 


Researcher: 


Do you have animals on your farm? 


Edith: 


Yes (truth). 


Researcher: 


Which animals do you keep? 


Edith: 


Chicken, goats and cows (truth). 


Researcher: 


Can you tell us how many of each animal you have? 


Edith: 


2 chickens (lie no. 3), 2 goats (lie no. 4) and 1 cow (truth). 


Researcher: 


Have you cow carved recently? 


Edith: 


Yes (truth). 


Researcher: 


Do you milk it? 


Edith: 


Yes (truth) 


Researcher: 


How many liters per day? 


Edith: 


About four liters (lie no. 5). 


Researcher: 


Do you sell some of your milk? 


Edith: 


No (lie no. 6). 


Researcher: 


What do you feed your cow? 


Edith: 


Hay, fodder and sometimes I let it graze in the field. 


Researcher: 


Do you buy manufactured cow feed? 


Edith: 


Oh.... No (lie no. 7). 


Researcher: 


Why don't you? 


Edith: 


I can't afford it. (The questioning continues). 




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The Contmdictions 



I did not narrate this incident to show that my mother is a blatant liar; neither do I want to 
show that the knowledge that the academic researcher wanted to generate is not 
important. Rather,. I want to raise some methodological issues that I find problematic in 
the approach taken by this academic researcher in a community whose members are not 
all literate and have not adopted English as their mode of communication in their day 
today activities. There is an obvious cultural insensitivity and the knowledge generated is 
far removed from the daily experiences of the community members. There is no 
communication that the knowledge generated will directly benefit individuals as well as 
the community. It is no wonder that my mother gives lie after lie without a care what it 
may mean to the academics, policy makers and interest groups all of whom she has no 
experiential knowledge of their existence. 

A brief analysis of this encounter can reveal a few things that made my mother act the 
way she did. Her immediate appearance at the mention of "visitors" and abandoning her 
work is a cultural response. The Gikuyu people have a saying that "mugeni ni rui" which 
directly translated means that "a visitor is a river. A visitor is given the attributes of 
waters of a flowing river that do not settle at one point for any length of time. Visitors are 
therefore to be treated kindly and with respect because they are only here temporarily. 

This explains why my mother came home and abandoned her work to meet the visitors. 
On arrival however, she realizes that the "visitors" are unknown to her and she becomes 
suspicious for a number of reasons. One, my mother grew up in colonial Kenya and she 
was directly involved in the war of independence. We happen to come from the 
community that was in direct confrontation with the British because our land was forcibly 
taken and we were placed on reserves. Any form of resistance from us was harshly 
treated and often through interrogations and subsequent detention. My mother had 
witnessed my father being interrogated usually by smartly dressed "foreigners" who often 
carried pens and papers. Beside the interrogation during the war of independence, post- 
colonial Kenya has used the same methods to silence critics. One of my sisters had to 



leave the country for exile in Sweden because of what the government interpreted to be 
subversive activities. When my sister secretly left the country, my entire family was put 
under surveillance and my home was ransacked as they searched for documents that 
would lead to the arrest of my sister or her husband. It is therefore obvious that a 
foreigner appearing in our homestead with the same characteristics of earlier 
interrogators would not be received kindly. She had to first shed her identity to be 
comfortable to lie that she has six children when in actual fact she has nine. On the same 
note, the Gikuyu people do not reveal the actual number of children for fear that a bad 
omen would befall on some. As it happened in the past, she worried that if she told the 
actual number of animals she had, some would be confiscated (the home guards/ 
collaborators often did that during the war) or she would be asked to pay higher taxes etc. 

Secondly, the language barrier makes it difficult for my mother to express herself or even 
to understand and interpret the questions to her ability. She answers questions in 
monosyllables even though she would have expressed herself in deeper details if she had 
the language. The foreigner did not understand the body language that may have 
suggested that she may have not been telling the truth or even to show she was 
intimidated. She was obviously making some subversive body language as it happened 
when she was narrating this incident to my sister and me. 

In conclusion, I can say that there was an obvious mistrust between the researcher and 
researched because of past experiences. There is cultural insensitivity by the researcher 
and the knowledge generation is not mutual. I find that the researcher has power and 
control, which he uses to intimidate the researched. How this knowledge was used is 
beyond my concern but I would say that the experiences it has left behind are negative to 
those who were involved. 

The Challenge. 

Going back to the community I was bom and raised as an academic researcher will mean 
abandoning the "linear method of inquiry" (Ndunda, 1995, p.78) as described in the 
above incident with my mother and adopting an experiential methodology that will treat 




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the community members as knower in knowledge production through participation and 
dialogue, analysis of discourses/discussions (Fals-Borda & Rahman, 1991). I have to 
begin from where the community members are at the moment so that we can work 
together through the research process for social transformation. This commitment to an 
experiential methodology and the consequent transformation will be made possible by the 
fact that I'm an insider in this community and I would be allowed some information that 
only an insider can access. Beside the obvious trust the community members have of 
their own, there are details of non-verbal communication that only an insider would 
know. For instance, the Gikuyu people like many ethnic groups in Kenya particularly the 
elders' make extensive use of proverbs and other special forms of communication. Such 
forms of communication become even more complex when the problem is sensitive and 
the focus is on groups (Ahlberg, 1991; Ndunda, 1995). There is also the advantage of 
using Gikuyu as the language of research because "there are certain words that attain 
their full meanings, strength and flavor only if expressed in vernacular" (Ndunda, 1995, 
p.73). Body language such as gestures, facial expressions and voice variation are 
important tools of communication, which can only be understood well by people who 
have grown in this community (Ahlberg, 1991). Sometimes, laughter that may not be 
significant to an outsider could indicate subversiveness, disapproval or a cautionary 
warning to a particular phenomenon (Ahlberg, 1990: Ndunda, 1995). 

An ideal methodology is one that would empower the community members during the 
research process. Empowerment means that those community members begin to gain 
"self understanding and ideally, self-determination" (Ndunda, 1995, p.44) through the 
research methods chosen. Those community members who have often accepted their 
struggles as a way of life need to start questioning the hegemonic institutions that has 
created and maintained their suffering which would consequently lead to a search for 
alternatives. This would mean consciousness raising through careful analysis of the 
historical and cultural structures that people can identify with. 

References 




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Ahlberg -Maina, Beth (1991). Women sexuality and the changing social order: 
The impact of government policies on reproduction behavior in Kenya. Philadelphia: 
Gordon and Breach. 

Fal-Borda, Orlando and Mohammad Anisur Rahaman (1991). Action and 
Knowledge: Breaking the monopoly with participatory action research. New York: Apex 
Press. 



Ndunda, Mutindi (1995). Women's agency and educational policy: The 
experiences of women of Kilome-Kenya. Unpublished Ph.D thesis: University of British 
Columbia, Canada. 



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